'We know there is still a lot to do'
We talk to chair of the children's trust Julian Wooster about the recent improvements
By Sarah Ward
On Friday Ofsted published a report that said Northamptonshire’s children’s services had made progress from inadequate and was now a service that requires improvement.
After several years of failure - including the tragic deaths and severe neglect of young children at the hands of their carers - government inspectors have said the service is now performing better.
A thorough inspection in September which saw as many as eight inspectors look through every department found that the chaos encountered by children’s commissioner Malcolm Newsam back in 2019 had been calmed and under the management of an independent trust, there are improvements to the quality of social care practice and the early help given to families has been strengthened.
But improvements are still required.
It found much more needs to be done by social services (and other local agencies) to help children at risk of criminal exploitation as well as improving the response to children who go missing.
After the publication of the Ofsted inspection we spoke to the chair of Northamptonshire Children’s Trust Julian Wooster.
What is your reaction to the Ofsted report?
“It really reflects the great progress the trust has made working with both the councils.
“Clearly given where Northamptonshire County Council was this is significant progress, however there is still a lot to do.
“What we are committed to is making sure we address the weaknesses and further improve. Our ambition is to deliver good services and I am confident we have got the right leadership in place and the capacity to improve that. We are in very difficult times at the moment but I am confident we can improve in those areas.
“Given the journey we have been on this is a fantastic result. We need to carry on. The danger is slipping back and we are very committed to making sure we don’t slip back - we know there is still a lot to do.”
How have you tackled the long running issue of social workers not wanting to work in Northamptonshire ?
“The senior leadership team and the chief executive of the trust have changed the culture. It is a much more involving one with staff. What we are about is what social workers do on the front line. That is the critical bit. There is a national shortage of social workers, so we are in competition with other authorities around us, but we think we are now in a good place to be an attractive employer. A lot of our staff are committed to working in Northamptonshire and are really proud of work they are doing.
“We are confident we are making good progress in a very difficult context across the country.”
Where are the new social workers coming from?
“There are a number of strategies we have in place. We are recruiting through growing our own staff - that’s staff going through training programmes who we are supporting as newly qualified social workers. We are recruiting from neighbouring authorities and we have a number of people who live in Northamptonshire but work elsewhere at the moment and we think we can make it attractive for them to return to Northamptonshire.
“We have an increase in staffing numbers - so we are not losing staff, we are gaining staff. Clearly some staff move on. They get promotion or their family circumstances change, or they approach retirement, there will always be a churn of staff with that process but our churn of staff is lower than in other areas of the country. So we are doing more to retain our staff and support them through this progress.
“In line with lots of other authorities we are recruiting from overseas as well. We have social workers from Southern Africa who are keen to work in the UK and work with us. That is a small fraction of the recruitment. We are not putting all our eggs in one basket, we are recruiting across a whole range of activities to improve the workforce.”
How are you tackling the issue of expensive care placements?
“We’re working with the local authority to provide accommodation with good quality providers who aren't profiteering. Where appropriate we will move away from those companies who are making excessive profits and that is a deliberate policy for good reason. (But what we won’t do is move a child if they are well settled).
“We are working with both councils to secure buildings and that capital investment is a key issue. Where they have buildings spare we can provide staff to run those buildings.”
The report flags up improvements are needed in how the service deals with children who are at risk of criminal exploitation. Is there an issue with how partnerships work together in Northamptonshire?
“What they [Ofsted] are clearly saying is there is a lot more to do and I wouldn't disagree with that. Child exploitation is not just about what children's social care does but what education does, what police do as well.
“Certainly working relationships [between public authorities in Northants] are a lot better. The safeguarding partnership which has overall responsibility for child exploitation is really focused on this area of work and bringing partners together.
“It is a challenging issue and child murders are a really serious issue we have and also county lines. It is a national problem. The government needs to take action to address some of these issues and a key part of this is helping children stay in school and support their families. A lot of those youngsters have schooling issues which makes them particularly vulnerable.”
Children’s services in Northamptonshire are currently £11m over budget. What are you doing about this?
“The issue is the extent of the demands in places and that is linked to the challenges with unregistered places. That has significantly added to our costs. All children’s services across the country as far as I know are overspending, including those outstanding authorities. So it is a big pressure across the country and something myself and ourselves are raising with the government about how we can support local councils to address these issues as well. The requirements and regulations are extensive and are these the right regulations? We are asking the government to think if they have the right set of arrangements.
“Quite rightly every council will be asking the question ‘why is children's services so expensive at the moment and why are costs rising?’, so we have a lot of work in attending meetings to explain the challenges.”
What has been the effect of the pandemic?
“Certainly we have more children with complex needs than we had before, that's a national issue. We have more children in care. That is happening across the board. Ultimately it was about the closure of places in schools. Even though vulnerable children often were able to attend school, if they are teenagers and their friends were not attending school it was difficult to get those teenagers into school and difficult for parents to get those teenagers into school and also there were children who the service has not known before who have lots of problems that people have not picked up upon. Children's social care is very reliant on health, education and police partners to identify issues and let us know about them and those children were not visible. The pandemic has done a lot of harm to children.
Has the trust’s chief executive Colin Foster done a good job so far?
“Colin has been key in changing the culture and making it much more about understanding staff issues and supporting staff. Staff were frightened to say that things aren't right in case they lost their jobs. That has changed. Part of helping people to improve is your ability to say, ‘well that didn't go quite right, I'm not sure this is working with this family’, to get people to be open about their issues and Colin has created that culture where people can talk about things that aren't working properly. Staff can go to him if they are not getting the right support from their immediate managers, because it is what happens at the front line that’s important, my role and the board’s role is to create the right environment for social work practice and to make a difference for children.”
Will you be remaining as chair for the foreseeable future?
“Yes I am not planning on going anywhere. I'm committed to improving Northamptonshire children’s lives and I’m very committed to working with colleagues and both councils.”
Read an earlier story about children’s services